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Last Tuesday was Empathy Day, and we invited Fen Coles to share her top reads for teaching empathy and kindness. Fen is a co-director at Letterbox Library, a 36-year-old not-for-profit children's bookseller specialising in inclusion, diversity and equality. Read on to learn more about the amazing work they do and the empathy reads Fen would encourage everyone to have on their bookshelf. We recommend you have these alongside the books on EmpathyLab UK's Read for Empathy Guide. The founder of Empathy Day, EmpathyLab UK has made great strides promoting the power of books to teach empathy and build a better world.
Letterbox Library was set up 36 years ago by two parents intent on sourcing and selling diverse and inclusive children’s books. Throughout our history, we have also stocked social justice books: books which empower children to think about and process often challenging subjects in age-appropriate ways. Right now, our books are being sought after more than ever.
Social distancing is bewildering and often feels cruel for the very young. Children and young people are also trying to make sense of social media’s cacophony of news, not just about the current pandemic but also about police brutality, racist oppression and uprisings in the streets both at home and abroad. As children’s carers and educators we want to offer comfort, understanding, clarity, knowledge and, as ever, there are books out there to support and embolden us in this work. Here’s just a small selection…
Nothing I could say or write can begin to capture the times we are living in. The threats of social division, state controls and conflicts also co-exist with the promise of compassion, community support and a much keener, active attentiveness to each other’s needs and life experiences. In amidst all of this upheaval, children are our witnesses and are themselves going through enormous transitions.
From Lantana's diverse and inclusive list:
Tomorrow by Nadine Kaadan
Lantana, of course, are one of the publishers who really triumph in this area. Take, for example, Tomorrow by Nadine Kaadan, based on the author’s own experience of the war in Syria and told from the perspective of a young child, Yazan who is forced to stay indoors with his family while war rages outside. There was no shortage of people in the UK who, during lockdown, remarked on the many resonances of this book for children. While the wider context of war is in no way comparable, Yazan’s experience of curfew and the careful, deliberate centring of his experience gives this book an emotional heart which echoed many children’s experience of our new social restrictions: confusion at the sudden end of school, the change in the surrounding adults’ behaviour and the constant news blaring out of the TV set; the boredom of a monotonous life spent indoors; the struggle to grasp the seismic events outdoors. But, ultimately, this picture book also offers a template for hope through a closely bonded family who role model resilience and faith in the future through imaginative play. (Watch Nadine's lovely reading of Tomorrow HERE)
The Pirate Tree by Brigita Orel and Jennie Poh
The Pirate Tree manages that accomplished feat of some of the most successful picture books – a simple idea which nevertheless easily channels out and burrows down into wider reflections. A classic story of a newcomer who is initially considered unfamiliar and spurned by an indigenous person is then welcomed when it is discovered they have things in common. On one level, the text tells a simple story about a new friendship but the illustrations take us elsewhere- the delicately drawn facial expressions, the imaginative world-building which culminates with each page, the gnarled tree centrepiece which flings out its branches and roots and surely has tales to tell of its own… All illustrative devices which help us read widely around two children’s gradual approach of and towards each other.
Taking Time by Jo Loring-Fisher
When I first read Taking Time by Jo Loring-Fisher, I experienced it first and foremost as a miniature art gallery. Sweeping brushstrokes keep the landscapes in motion, carrying us through the book, at the same time that each double-page spread also has the quality of a formal tableaux- children are carefully positioned, gazing out onto dramatic, changing landscapes or engaged in a single absorbing moment. All of which is, of course, the perfect complement to a text which encourages children to engage with their environment in a way which is patient and considered. Taking time, reflecting, pausing, mindfulness- the ideal building blocks to imbuing empathy. (Watch Jo's lovely reading of Taking Time HERE)
And now, for a handful of Letterbox Library titles with a slight bias, perhaps, towards elevating books which we think deserve to be far better known:
Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson and E. B. Lewis (Nancy Paulsen Books)
BUY from Letterbox Library
New girl, Maya, looks different in her ragged hand-me-downs and she's always left playing on her own. A wise, thoughtful, everyday story about exclusion & kindness which, unusually for a children’s book, references poverty. Not an easy read but a deservedly emotionally complex treatment which would suit ages 6+. An award-winning team and one of the most moving picture books we have seen.
The Cloud by Hannah Cumming (Child's Play International)
BUY from Letterbox Library
Art Class is bleak and solitary for one quiet child who sits, staring at a huge blank canvas with a fuzzy black scrawl of a cloud hovering over her... but a patient and fun-filled little girl determines to battle her way through the haze of crossness with her weapons of choice: tireless and repeated gestures of friendship and love! Perfectly pitched to the very young (4-7).
Luna Loves Library Day by Joseph Coelho and Fiona Lumbers (Andersen Press)
BUY from Letterbox Library
Luna enjoys her special weekly visit to the library. Mum drops her off and Dad is always already there, waiting, with his head in a book. An expansive book for ages 4 to 7 which manages to delicately wrap up a thoughtful story of family separation within a wider celebration of books, reading and libraries. A genius text for making literal the power of books to give honest expression to and therefore also soothe difficult and complicated feelings.
Want to Play Trucks? by Ann Stott and Bob Graham (Candlewick)
BUY from Letterbox Library
An absolute favourite early years (ages 3-6) title of ours. A gentle and extremely comic challenge to the restrictive stereotyping experienced by boys and therefore also a great prompt for enabling children to speak about how they experience gender roles. Jack and Alex meet daily in the sandpit. Jack likes trucks, Alex prefers dolls. One day Alex suggests that they join up their play: "Let’s play dolls that drive trucks". The deal is sealed- simply and without protest. Except there is a small matter of whether a full tutu will actually fit in the driver's seat... Smart and clever, this is a joyful celebration of children's imaginative play… and the universal appeal of ice cream.
For further empathy reads you can find lots more titles on Lantana’s website and at Letterbox Library (esp. see our themed sections Making Friends, Feelings, Bullying).
Thank you, Fen! Follow Letterbox Library on Twitter for up-to-date news on their offerings and for great links to articles around the web on inclusivity and diversity in children's books, media and culture. Visit them at letterboxlibrary.com
Fen is a co-director at Letterbox Library, a 36-year-old, not-for-profit children’s booksellers specialising in equality, diversity and inclusion. She also co-runs the Little Rebels Award for Radical Children’s Fiction. Fen has a PhD (2005) and an MA (1995) in Interdisciplinary Women's Studies. Before joining Letterbox Library in 2005, Fen worked for various women’s and lgbtq+ rights charities and was a p/t tutor at Warwick University (‘Lesbian Cultural Studies’).